Sweet Potatoes

By Rommel Villa | Drama
A young scientist invents the birth control pill, then deals with its consequences.

Luis is a scientist in 1950s Mexico, who works part-time in a lab on a potentially world-changing project: he’s trying to synthesize the hormone that will prevent conception. He’s using material from Mexican sweet potatoes — the medicinal plant barbasco, a wild yam indigenous to the region — to generate the hormone. But the experiment keeps failing.

But Luis faces potential conflict and tension about his work. His best friend is an influential priest in a local church and is against the idea of birth control altogether. And his wife wants to have a large family, though Luis is apprehensive, due to unresolved grief over a miscarriage and the pressures of providing for such a large family. Due to his fears, he tells no one about his scientific quest. But when Luis’s work finally pays off, these conflicts come out into the open, forcing Luis to either stand by his convictions or face significant personal loss.

Written and directed by Rommel Villa, this short historical drama tells an expansive, moving and unusually emotionally intimate story of a scientific hero and inventor, with a singular and immersive focus on Luis as a father, friend and husband as much as a scientist.

True to its 1950s historical setting, the film has a stately, formal and even sumptuous visual sense, with elegant camerawork and movement and lush color and light. But the film’s narrative power rests on solid, patient writing, which takes steady, deliberate care to detail Luis’s social, cultural and emotional circumstances. In many ways, he’s fighting an uphill battle. Religious attitudes have a fundamental opposition to the idea of his work, his wife seems aligned with those ideas and Mexico itself was facing overpopulation.

But in another intelligent narrative strategy, the storytelling builds up the conflict on a more personal level, rather than focusing on the institutional. Much of Luis’s character arc revolves around Luis’s shame and ambivalence in his work. Those feelings affect his relationships and home life: essentially, he hides a significant part of himself, a strategy that puts him at odds with the people around him.

Actor Jorge Adrian Espinola excels in portraying the increasing toll on Luis as he confronts increasing pressures, which break opens his vulnerability. But even more fascinating, the performance captures the interplay between scientific work and personal life, and how that work is driven by personal conviction as much as progress for progress’s sake. When he decides to confront both personal and institutional obstacles, his emotion is well-earned and triumphant, even when it comes at great personal cost.

The winner of an prestigious Student Academy Award, “Sweet Potatoes” feels very much like a feature-length story in a shorter format. Sometimes that scope can backfire, but here it offers an immersive, extremely moving short film rich in ideas, character and emotional depth. Viewers come away understanding not just the work itself, but the man behind it.

Luis Miramontes’s name may not be as widespread in history and culture as Pasteur, Edison and other inventors, though he became the first Mexican to be included in the USA Inventors Hall of Fame. But “Sweet Potatoes” makes the case that he has earned a place in that pantheon, not just for the brilliance and social impact of his work, but for the personal conviction behind his achievement.

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